Building a program

Ketchikan football team plays for the love of the game: Win or lots of losing

Posted: Tuesday, October 21, 2003

KETCHIKAN - This fall, U.S. Coast Guard medic Kevin Vandelac took the helm of the state's lone independent and most geographically isolated football program - a team that hasn't won a game in its five years of existence.

"This has to be the hardest job in the state," Vandelac said. "With everything - the number of players, this field, the lack of support, no one else has it like this."

When Vandelac, now on his second tour of duty in Ketchikan, was first stationed here for two years in the mid-1990s, his coaching job didn't even exist.

The officially sanctioned high school program had been dormant for nearly 50 years, and in its place was an intramural team that had no academic requirements, little credibility and a rough-and-tumble following.

"There were no standards, anybody could play, and it was a rough crowd," said Kayhi offensive coordinator Blaine Ashcraft.

The school began its first real football season in nearly half a century at Norman Walker Field in August 1999. The Kings hit the field with barely enough teenagers to field a team - just three seniors and a handful of starters who had never played competitive football.

Kayhi lost that game to Sitka 36-7, thus marking the birth of a disappointing streak of 21 straight losses with just nine touchdowns scored, leading up to this year's 0-4 season.

"They want to win, they came in this year thinking they could win every game," said Vandelac, who's spent 11 years coaching prep football up and down the Pacific Coast. "But it's so hard. They're so used to losing."

The 2003 campaign started much the same as the last ones had, with just 13 players willing to trudge through a season of iron man football.

Racks of 90 shoulder pads and helmets sat unused in the team's locker room behind Walker Field, where some of the school's better athletes milled around in the parking lot while their friends suited up and played.

"They don't want to be associated with a losing program, no one does," Vandelac said. "No one wants to help turn it around."

After two winless seasons, the program had reached a low point midway through its 2001 campaign. As a member of the Northern Lights-South Conference, the Kings traveled some 1,600 miles to play four conference road games in Alaska's Interior.

During the stretch, Vandelac reluctantly faced the task of confronting his team after a 72-0 loss to two-time defending state small schools champion Kenai Central High School. The team failed to gain a single yard of offense.

"I was scared to go into the locker room, thinking, 'What am I going to say?"' said Vandelac. "I was dragging my feet. But when I got in there, they were just like they were before the game: They didn't care. They just asked, 'Hey coach, is there a dance tonight?"'

At odds with their conference rivals and out of money, the Kings seceded from the conference before the next season. The four other teams refused to play in Ketchikan unless Kayhi paid their travel costs, Vandelac said.

As one of a number of athletic programs that has never received funding from Ketchikan High School, the football team had no choice but to fend for itself as an independent in scheduling, fund-raising and budgeting.

That left them with games against the likes of Sitka, Juneau-Douglas and the Juneau junior varsity squad, all of whom they played during the 2003 season. Kayhi was outscored 159-0 in the three games, a stretch in which Vandelac often hoped just to get off the field without losing any players to injury.

But during a 64-0 loss to large schools state runner-up Juneau in the season opener, freshman quarterback Chris Ashcraft and sophomore running back Boyd Runnion both went down with injuries.

The next weekend Kayhi was scheduled to travel to Kodiak, but the team had no healthy replacements for the injured, so Vandelac called the game off. Instead, the Kings played a lazy afternoon scrimmage against a mix of Ketchikan firefighters and former Kayhi players, men in their 20s who now hold title belts in the local toughman boxing club.

Vandelac himself suited up on defense, an impromptu return to action after starring as a sophomore linebacker at the University of Montana in 1991.

Despite that setback and a 52-0 loss to the Juneau JV team a week later, the Kings and their coaches held on doggedly to their next game - against San Diego's Francis Parker High School, on Walker Field.

"It's the first game we'll have that is a real, good old-fashioned, Lower 48-style football game," Vandelac said days before. "And the more it rains, the better."

Rain is something the Kings are used to. Ketchikan borders the Tongass National Forest, a temperate rain forest that thrives on 155 inches of annual rainfall. Walker Field's surface handles the steady precipitation better than a grass field might, but stories of wind and rain turning over-the-middle slant passes into backward laterals aren't uncommon.

In the end, the California college prep school pulled off a 64-0 blowout. The Lancers brought in their reserves at the 52-0 mark, but the Kings just kept switching between offense and defense. Ashcraft played the game with a cracked kneecap. Fullback and linebacker Jon Hamilton played nearly every down with a broken wrist.

On every third play, Runnion streaked to the sideline to have the tip of his finger re-taped so not to expose the pin inserted there after a preseason accident with a circular saw. And all the while he incessantly tried to rally his team from his spot in the defensive secondary: "We're not out of this," he hollered, "we all make mistakes!"

"I just told them I was proud of them, and that they earned the respect from a great program from California tonight," Vandelac said afterward. "They always played hard, they played hurt, and they showed heart."

Lancers coach John Morrison and Vandelac then gathered the two teams on the bleachers for some final words.

"I'm very interested to see where this program goes from here," Morrison said. "We have a lot of respect for you guys who play with low numbers and in these conditions. Hopefully you can build the program up and take a whole group of guys down to San Diego when you see us again next year."

A San Diego trip is now a reward for the players who suit for up Kayhi next fall, despite the demanding fund-raising efforts the Kings will face in the offseason.

It's also an incentive for more to come out and play, along with another trip to play Vandelac's old high school squad in Port Angeles, Wash.

Juneau's coaching staff has even offered the Kings a chance to accompany the Juneau team to a preseason camp in Washington next summer.

"I'm really excited, I can't wait for next year," said 187-pound freshman tight end/defensive end Trevor Eubanks, who dabbled in youth wrestling but dropped it for a long-awaited prep career with the Kings.

"My friends nag me and ask, 'Why do you want to play football?' Screw them. I play for the game, win or lose."

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